“You buy the whole seat but you only need the edge.”
That pretty much sums up the kind of action that played out again at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday. NASCAR’s final event of its three race “West Coast Swing” saw big wrecks, exciting racing, and an overtime finish, in a spectacle that is already being dubbed the best of the year.
Austin Dillon led the field to the green flag for the 20th annual Auto Club 400. The action didn’t take long to heat up, as with the wide racing groove that the Fontana track presents, cars immediately spread out high and low at sometimes four and five wide. Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards picked up right where they left off at Phoenix, and emerged early on as two of the favorites in the race.
The first major accident took place on Lap 49, as Kyle Larson blew a right-rear tire headed down the backstretch. Larson wasn’t able to hang on, and the No.42 car veered left and slid hard into the inside wall. All four tires came up off the ground before the car came to rest.
“I’m all right,” Larson radioed to his crew. “That one really hurt, though.” The Elk Grove, CA native was eventually evaluated and released from the infield care center.
Larson’s crash wasn’t the only hard wreck of the day. On Lap 122, Kasey Kahne and Danica Patrick made contact going down the front stretch, sending the No.10 car hard into the wall. Much like Larson, Patrick’s car got airborne after impact.
“I saw him (Kahne) chase me down the track and then the next thing I know I was getting spun up the track,” said Patrick. “I was passing him. He was behind me in the right rear.”
Patrick was obviously upset after the incident, and rightfully so, as Kahne was a lap down when the accident happened that ended her day.
“I didn’t mean to do that,” said Kahne. “I was just trying to side draft.”
It appeared that Kahne simply misjudged how close he was going to get to her right rear to use the side draft to pull back up against her. NASCAR went ahead and called Kahne, his crew chief, and his spotter into the hauler after the race, but only because they simply just wanted an explanation of what happened.
As the race began to get into its final stages, the battle for the lead began to heat up. On a restart with 44 laps to go, it became evident that nobody was going to give up the win easily. Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Edwards were all doing their best to get out in front, and most importantly out in front of Harvick. Within six laps of racing after the restart, the lead swapped four different times between Johnson, Edwards and Logano. But on Lap 166, Harvick was able to move out front and pull away.
With the laps ticking away, Harvick’s lead continued to grow. The win seemed to be in the big for the Bakersfield, CA native, until one of his closest challengers, Kyle Busch, blew a tire and pounded the wall. The caution flag flew with less than three laps remaining, sending the race into overtime.
Denny Hamlin beat the field off of pit road after pit stops, putting the No.11 in control of the race for the final restart. He wasn’t in control for long however, as Harvick got a good restart and cleared to the lead. The dominant car of the day out front with less than two laps remaining, how could he be beat?
But in his rear-view mirror, he saw that he had company coming. In what played out like a Hollywood movie, Jimmie Johnson in a Marvel Superman paint scheme came storming to the inside and took the lead as the field came to the white flag. The No.48 machine never looked back, and the CA native captured the checkered flag for his sixth time at his home-track.
“Somebody get me my damn cape!” Johnson shouted as he crossed the finish line in his Superman sponsored Chevy.
Johnson not only earned his 77th career victory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but he also surpassed NASCAR’s other “Man of Steel”, Dale Earnhardt, on the all-time career win list.
His crew-chief Chad Knaus was very pleased with the victory, and was very vocal about his love for the Fontana track. It is the fifth time in the last six races at the California track in which there was a pass for the win in the final two laps.
“For the last green-white-checkered finish, obviously he just drove it straight down to the bottom and was able to rail around the bottom and get passed the 4 car,” said Knaus. “This is an awesome racetrack from that standpoint. This is what you want when you’re a race team and a race car driver. You want to be able to go out there and slip and slide, and that’s what these guys had to do today.”
Harvick, Hamlin, Logano, Stenhouse Jr., Elliott, Edwards, Allmendinger, Keselowski, and McMurray rounded out the rest of the top-10 finishers on Sunday. Next weekend is NASCAR’s version of Spring Break, as the teams and competitors will all get a well-deserved week off. Auto Club Speedway once again provided a spectacle worthy of an Oscar, and Jimmie Johnson and the entire racing series have a great race to dwell on for this Easter off-weekend.